Last month, I wrote that one of Hollywood’s most significant assumptions could be facing a significant challenge. As international markets have become increasingly important, it has become an odd — but unsupported — truism that female actresses and female characters do not draw big audiences outside of the United States. This has been a justification for marginalizing female characters even as franchises like “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” clean up at overseas box offices.
And it seemed possible that we might have even better evidence that women can play as well in Portugal as in Peoria. Stacy Smith, director of the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said that she and her colleagues would be releasing data on the international performance of female-driven films come fall.
On Monday, FiveThirtyEight beat her to it. Walt Hickey drew data from BechdelTest.com, which tracks whether movies pass the famous exam laid out in 1985 by cartoonist Alison Bechdel — looking at whether movies have more than one female character, and whether those characters talk to each other about something other than a man. Hickey took a look at the movies released by 1990 and 2013 and analyzed the performance of those that passed the test, and those that failed.
In one respect, his findings confirmed the widely held assumption that it is hard for women-focused movies to get financing, and when they succeed, they get less of it. “The median budget of a film that failed the test was $48.4 million,” Hickey wrote. “The median budget of a film that passed was $31.7 million, or 35 percent less.”
But in two others, Hickey offered up hard numbers to challenge Hollywood’s pessimism about films that focus on women. Overall, he found that movies that pass the Bechdel test actually outperform their counterparts that fail on one specific metric.
“The total median gross return on investment for a film that passed the Bechdel Test was $2.68 for each dollar spent. The total median gross return on investment for films that failed was only $2.45 for each dollar spent,” Hickey writes. “And while this might be a side effect of films with lower budgets tending to have higher returns on investment than films with higher budgets, it’s still a strong indicator that films with women in somewhat prominent roles are performing well.”
And overseas, the numbers are still good: Movies that pass the Bechdel Test made $1.17 per dollar of their budget overseas, exactly the same as movies where female characters do not talk to each other, or movies that have fewer than two female characters. Movies in which women only talk to each other about men did worse, at $1.06 per dollar.
This is exactly the kind of analysis that I suggested data-driven journalists could profitably contribute to entertainment reporting back when FiveThirtyEight.com launched. And it is exactly the sort of data that backs up the anecdotal evidence that those of us who would like to see more female characters, and more kinds of stories about women, have been brandishing at Hollywood for years. If skeptics of women-centered stories are able to brush off examples like the billion-dollar box office for “Frozen” as some sort of fluke, maybe long-range data like Hickey presents here, and that which Smith is assembling, can start to turn this titantically misguided assumption around.